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From the Field

May 10:

Gavin Bieber reports from sunny Florida

After a year-long hiatus due to the pandemic it was fantastic to return to Florida for our 2021 Spring South Florida tour.  Although we only visit a small section of the state it’s a tour with a remarkably varied avifauna.  Several Caribbean species like Black-whiskered Vireo, Shiny Cowbird and White-crowned Pigeons reach the northern edge of their range in Florida and this year we were also treated to a true vagrant in the form of the wonderfully cooperative Black-faced Grassquit.

Black-whiskered Vireo

Shiny Cowbird

White-crowned Pigeons

Black-faced Grassquit

Out on the Tortugas we connected with Black Noddy, Bridled Tern, Masked Booby and even a surprise Audubon’s Shearwater.  Waterbirds abound in the wetlands of the southern Peninsula, perhaps none more unique than this Limpkin. 


Florida has its share of endemic subspecies too, such as the darker and more heavily spotted Burrowing Owl and smaller and paler Red-shouldered Hawk. 

Burrowing Owl

Red-shouldered Hawk

Of course, no trip around Miami could leave out the wealth of established exotics, such as this inquisitive Mitred Parakeet or these colourful Nanday Parakeets that we found near Tampa Bay on the first day. 

Mitred Parakeets

Nanday Parakeets

Add in the diversity of reptiles, butterflies and dragonflies and this short week in South Florida proved quite the wildlife spectacle!

(Photos by Gavin Bieber and Allen Codding)

April 21:

Steve Howell sends a closing report from his month in West Mexico, barely enough time to celebrate the diversity of birds there—around 400 species seen with pretty casual birding!

Arguably top ranked among birds of color is the stunning Rosy Thrush-tanager (a potential split as Mexican Thrush-tanager), here a male.

Although male Orange-breasted Bunting is also a strong contender!

And even a male Bronzed Cowbird in good light is really quite stunning

The male Red-breasted Chat is stunning in a different way, and rather easy to see here in spring.

The violet-blue mask highlights of Russet-crowned Motmot (a potential split, as Mexican Motmot, from Guatemalan birds) can be appreciated close-up, and they are amazingly COMMON here!

Another potential split, the West Mexican Vermiculated/Middle American Screech-Owl showed well, and Steve made some good recordings that may help resolve the taxonomic uncertainty.

The most surprising bird of the ten days at Rancho Primavera was this Long-eared Owl, watched chasing a Northern Potoo!

The next night, this obliging Mottled Owl was “all” we could find in the same trees.

Probably the rarest bird of the trip was Sinaloa Martin, seen a few times from the patio of Steve’s casita.

And here’s his Rancho Primavera “office” away from home, in late afternoon (beer time)—where, oddly, not much work was done!

April 12:

Steve Howell on Military Macaws

  1. While birding around northern Jalisco, Mexico, for the past ten days, Steve Howell and Luke Seitz found Military Macaws to be a daily occurrence—there is a healthy (but inevitably threatened) population of these magnificent birds in the region. In some places the birds could even be watched perched, rather than the more usual flight views.
  2. A couple of low-flying macaws from a few days ago, spectacular birds with their palette of emerald-green, turquoise, red, and golden yellow.
  1. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Mexican populations of Military Macaw look and sound somewhat different from the other (far distant) populations in the Andes of South America, and are a potential split (Mexican Macaw), making their conservation even more important.
  2. Fortunately, there are people passionate about conserving the macaws and their habitat. Luke and Steve met with macaw biologists Carlos Bonilla R. and Claudia Cinta M., who have been working in Jalisco for 10 years with conservation, research, and environmental education. Check their website for more information; like all such projects they always welcome donations—even a little money can go a long way in Mexico.

April 6:

Steve Howell reports from the quiet Rancho Primavera in West Mexico. 

Feeder Birds. Not everyone is lucky enough to live in Canada or the Northeast US where the winter cold and snow bring chickadees and sporadic invasions of finches to their feeders. Here at Rancho Primavera in West Mexico (an hour or so south of Puerto Vallarta, out in the hills) I have to live with Russet-crowned Motmot, here alongside a migrant Swainson’s Thrush, …

The occasional Yellow-breasted Chat…

And the usually skulking Orange-billed Nightingale-Thrush,

Plus lots of Rufous-backed Thrushes (or Robins).

Streak-backed Orioles really like the oranges…

As do the Mexican (aka Yellow-winged) Caciques

And even the Golden-cheeked Woodpeckers.

It’s not all color, but the Grayish Saltator is attractive in its own subtle way,

Although outshone by a glowing male Yellow Grosbeak, a fan of papaya.

One of the regular feeder visitors is Blue Mockingbird, a great chance to see this typically shy and elusive species.

There are even sparrows, but only the rather fancy Stripe-headed Sparrow. So, if you ever feel like a winter break to escape the chickadees, this could be the spot!

March 30:

Steve Howell sends another update from San Blas, Mexico.

After 18 days in San Blas, Mexico (our regular tour is only 9 days!), Steve Howell reluctantly dragged himself away. The highlight of his stay was a small group of White-fronted Swifts one morning, a species described only in 1992 (!) and seen in life only a handful of times ever!


For the non-swift aficionados, there was plenty of color, including this Golden Vireo...


Groups of sociable Mexican Parrotlets...


And lots of Lineated Woodpeckers.


Elusive species included a confiding Lesser Ground-Cuckoo


And, after 40 minutes of patient sitting, a stunning Spotted Rail finally peeked out.

One of the San Blas signature birds, Boat-billed Heron, showed well (even if it tried not to!)...


And a remarkable record count of 39 Northern Potoos may have been due to dry season conditions concentrating birds along the river.


Speaking of records, along with Luke Seitz and Maili Waters (down in Mexico on a three-month trip), Steve helped set a new Big Day record for Mexico—290 species on 27 March, including Eared Poorwill (number 286)…


And a stunning fly-over Laughing Falcon…


But not including Surfbird, which had been a regular migrant in preceding days—the joy and unpredictability of birding!

March 18:

Steve Howell is back on home turf - Mexico!

  1. Steve Howell reports in from the field (not the home!) on his spring break to San Blas, just to check that there are still birds in Mexico—and there are! This Streak-backed Oriole was one of 95 species in an unhurried three-hour morning walk near the hotel.

  1. Rufous-bellied Chachalacas have become much easier to see here in recent years, and tamer. Four walked past my room at the hotel yesterday afternoon and fed on fruit over one of the cabins while people splashed in the pool nearby!


  1. Black-throated Magpie-Jay is too large to fit in the frame, so here’s just the head.


  1. A pair of White-fronted Parrots dropped in and landed briefly, just long enough for one camera snap.


  1. Russet-crowned Motmots are calling a lot more than in winter, and much easier to see!


  1. In contrast to the colorful birds, this Northern Beardless Tyrannulet was pelting out his song from the tree next to the motmot!


  1. Lots of weed-eating flocks included some cracking male Varied Buntings.


  1. And plenty of raptors included this Northern Crested Caracara—and that’s just a summary of 3 hours. Now time to relax, shrimp burger lunch, and back out after a siesta. It will be great when we can start running tours here again!


  1. Lunch of shrimp burgers and fresh-squeezed limonadas, with an “Australian vagrant” – our Australasian expert leader Susan Myers has joined me to escape the northern winter, her first time in Mexico!

January 14:

Susan Myers shares some amaing images from her time at Bosque del Apache in New Mexico

If you’re a WINGS leader the birding never stops! There isn’t a single day where I’m not birding in one way or another. I won’t lie-I’ve been missing so many aspects of my leading life, not least showing our guests the amazing birds and placeswhereI lead, as well as my friends(human and avian) in Asia and Australia. But I’m making the most of my time here and really getting to know the birds of America. Last December I enjoyed a very special week in New Mexico as guests of my good friends Liz and Maurice Southworth. Our aim was to photograph the Sandhill Cranes at the legendary Bosque del Apache reserve south of Albuquerque. While isolating in our bubble (of course), we visited the reserve daily. Unfortunately for everyone, cranes included, New Mexico has been experiencing a drought for the last couple of years so the usual photography point where one can get close to these beautiful birds was as dry as a chip. So, no joy there, photography wise... Nevertheless, there were still thousands of cranes, as well as Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese, Northern Pintails, and others. What an incredible sight as the cranes daily flew in and out of their feeding and roosting sites. And the soundscape was also remarkable. Anyone who has experienced cranes en masse must surely count their honking as one of their favourite sounds. It reminded me very much of my winter tours to Japan where we visit Arasaki in the south to see the massive congregations of White-naped and Hooded Cranes. In fact, we see Sandhill Cranes there every year, too. But only three or four of them. This was something else!So here are some images I managed to capture of these most iconic of birds. I hope you enjoy them. By the way, if you’d like to see some more, I’m on Instagram @wildwomanphotos. And thanks again Liz and Maurice...


January 11:

Steve Howell finishes up his 2020 Bigfoot Year

Steve Howell concludes the saga of his COVID-enforced 2020 Bigfoot Year in his California home town (see previous FTH posts) with a summary of December, one of the highlights of which was this Christmas dawn, accurately foretelling some much needed rain. 


As any birder knows, diminishing returns is a rule of birding, and after many, many days afield in town I didn’t find a single new species in December for my Bigfoot Year. But it’s always nice to watch the regular local birds, including this dark Merlin in the neighborhood.


And the wintering young Ferruginous Hawk, which finally flew over my yard.


Bird of the year in town, however, was found by a friend on December 7th, and I was called in to help with the ID. Common Poorwill is the only “likely” nightjar here at any season, but this bird was mooted as perhaps a whip-poor-will. Imagine my surprise on seeing it—what the Chuck?! 


After sleeping in the sun, this one-day-wonder immature Chuck-will’s-widow yawned at dusk, preened its breast a little, and flew off, never to be seen again. Only the fourth California record, and two of the others were also in December–January, hinting at an interesting, but as-yet-unexplained, pattern.


One more oddball at the year’s end was this handsome male hybrid wigeon, a “new bird” for the walking year, even though I’d seen both parent species. So, the Bigfoot Year ended at 230 species, plus one hybrid, plus one species not found myself. 


This sunlit Merlin on January 1st was a nice way to ring in the New Year, and let’s hope 2021 allows a little more travel. Wishing a Happy New Year to all WINGS participants, and I hope to see some of you in the field later this year? And now we sit back and wait... 

December 14:

Steve Howell continues his Big Foot Big Year into October and November

Steve Howell continues the saga of his COVID-enforced Bigfoot Year in Bolinas, California, with a summary of the record-breaking (oops, giveaway...) late fall months, October and November. Whether it was daily birding or simply that October was above average, I found a steady trickle of new species, including predictable Broad-winged Hawks in the first few days, this adult with a full crop,


And an unpredictable Acorn Woodpecker (not annual in town, but breeds nearby), this immature male.

Vagrants included a couple of Tennessee Warblers, always a treat in bright fall plumage.

Plus the third Gray Catbird for my yard in 5 years, remarkably on the same date as the first bird (same bird?) back in 2016!


Flocks of Cackling Geese headed south in mid-month. 

Other notables included another (!) Painted Bunting, even drabber than the September bird—what color exactly is that?


A distant fly-over White-faced Ibis (I’ll assume it wasn’t a Glossy!) was tie-maker for the 2018 total of 218 species, and the tie-breaker was this unexpected young female Vermilion Flycatcher bathed in sunset light at the sewage ponds, very much a county rarity! Gone the next day, sadly.


October 28th produced Horned Lark and Cassin’s Finch from my yard (both local rarities), plus this loudly calling (thanks, or I’d never have seen it!) Swamp Sparrow a few blocks away, making 222 for the year—the old record well and truly shattered.


A few waterbirds in late month rounded out October at 225 species, and new birds inevitably dropped off in early November, although Varied Thrush finally (!) appeared, calling from a distant tree top one early morning.


For those who say, “Oh it was too far away to get a (documentary) photo,” that’s rarely true—if you can see and ID it with your binoculars, then the camera usually does a better job—here’s the same Varied Thrush image cropped, not a cover photo, but certainly diagnostic. Try it some time.


The “local” Black Vulture (a mega-rarity in California, but it’s been wandering the state for years) made an appearance one afternoon, number 227, and then a couple of Marbled Murrelets plus this vagrant Eastern Phoebe (here posing with a local Black Phoebe—look at the different wing and tail lengths) all on November 21st suddenly made 230 species go from unlikely to quite possible. What a difference a day makes!


I spent the rest of the month appreciating the local common birds, such as sparrows and this stunning Steller’s Jay (imagine this as a rare vagrant, it would blow your socks off!), and then literally out of the blue a fly-over Evening Grosbeak on November 28th brought my 2020 Bigfoot Year total to 230 species. Hmm, could anything new appear in December, and if so, what? I am now basically out of expected and evenly vaguely possible species, but as we know, who knows with birding… Stay tuned for the final episode, coming soon.


October 12:

Steve Howell continues his local by-foot Big Year into October

Steve Howell continues the saga of his COVID-enforced Bigfoot Year in his hometown of Bolinas, California, with a summary of the early fall months, August (or as the locals call it, Fogust—here my morning view “offshore”) and September.


A steady ebb and flow of regular migrants included larger numbers than usual of Willow Flycatcher, like this young bird.


And scarce local migrants like this juvenile Semipalmated Sandpiper, with a Least Sandpiper in the foreground...


Plus my first Yellow-breasted Chat in town this century!


Local rarities included this Rock Wren (or Woodpile Wren?) in late August.

And this young Spotted Owl (note the downy feathers still on the neck), which showed up for a few days in early September, here with a decapitated Dusky-footed Woodrat; likely a fire refugee (the owl, not the woodrat ;-).


Fall 2020 had a bit of an orange theme, with an early season fire close by—here a shot of the local fire station on 18 August as I walked home from downtown!


Some days though we had blue sky, with good numbers of low-flying Black Swifts (juvenile on left, adult male on right), perhaps migrant birds feeding at the edge of the burn?


Other days not so much blue sky... This midday (!! really) sky on 9 September was too dark and gloomy to even try birding, plus going out and breathing the air was inadvisable.


The days of golden light made for interesting photos, as with this Coyote in a nearby field.

A nice sideline to the orange theme was this Gulf Fritillary in my yard, the first I’ve ever seen locally.

Birding on cleaner-air days turned up a few vagrants, including this Blackburnian Warbler (a record shot in the smoky gloom!), ....

My first (long overdue) Northern Waterthrush in town, ...

And a decidedly drab immature Painted Bunting, closing out September at 208 species. So, perhaps a chance to beat my Bigfoot Year record of 218 species in 2018, and already having smashed the 2019 total of 203 species. Roll on October... (and 2022 for that matter ;-).

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